Do you know what happened on May 21? Not a whole lot. The world didn’t end, as Harold Camping and his followers would have had us believe. Which didn’t really come as a surprise to anyone. Camping and his doomsday prophecies come off as lunacy, and reality proves him wrong. The world moves on. Nobody cares.
Nobody cares. Except that as Seventh-day Adventists we’ve grown up with a message that the world will actually come to an end one day. Back in the 1800’s when people believed all sorts of things, a small group of Christians believed that Jesus would come back to Earth on a particular date. He didn’t. They were wrong. And from the ashes of that movement, Adventism emerged. The ridicule abated (somewhat), they dealt (somewhat) with the issue of 1844, and they laid a foundation (somewhat) within classic Christianity.
Despite clear Biblical counsel to the contrary (“For ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh,” Matthew 25:13), the obsession with dates and numbers didn’t quite end there. So when the movement known as Jehovah’s Witnesses came around some 30 years later, it was partly an Adventist minister (Jonas Wendell) who spurred them into setting dates and interpreting numbers and years. I know of individual members of my church who have tried to calculate dates for the Lord’s coming, and although mainline SDA theologians would never do that, there’s still a widespread passion for timelines and figures.
The problem is, that to the general public all these ideas are ridiculed equally. Some churches that I know of use Harold Camping as a marketing gimmick to get people to church and tell them the “real” version of final-day events: Come to our church and hear why Camping was wrong, and why we’re right. I think this is doing the church a disservice. In trying to distance themselves from his interpretation, in the public eye they’re actually joining his boat of crazy, end-of-the-world lunatics.
Camping’s own interpretation, post-May 21, is that Christ’s judgment did actually begin on that date, we just didn’t see it. As the independent Adventist magazine Spectrum points out, this is scarily reminiscent of what Adventists did, post-1844.
For good and bad, the apocalypse is an integral part of Adventist identity, as also Lars has recently reflected upon. I’m not suggesting we eradicate this completely, even if that were possible. But in the wake of Harold Camping and his obvious failure, I would suggest that a proper course of action would be… nothing. We shouldn’t put ourselves in the line of fire attacking him. And if we must talk about the Second Coming, I would suggest forgetting the when (because we don’t know the date), and forgetting the how (because Revelation is much too deep a book to be reduced into a cartoon depicting factual events). In stead, we should focus on the why: if/when the Second Coming occurs, it will be because God loves the world and wants to recreate (not destroy) it for the good of all mankind. That’s why Jesus came to Earth the first time. Let’s talk more about him, and less about the calendar.